TIFF Cinematheque presents a Summer in France: ‘Port of Shadows’ an undeniable game changer that revolutionized French filmmaking

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Port of Shadows

Directed by Marcel Carné

Written by Jacques Prévert

France, 1938

There’s a reason why it’s called ‘film noir’. Stylish, haunting, and lyrically cynical, the genre, however, has always been regarded as a staple in the American cinematic tradition.  So why the French name?

Because before the likes of Hitchcock, Huston or Hawks popularized the movement in the 40’s and 50’s, there was a Frenchman named Marcel Carné, whom, along with writer by Jacques Prévert, adapted a novel by Pierre Dumarchais to create Port of Shadows (French: Le Quai des brumes).

Bursting with a style, atmosphere, thematic discontent, and a ‘poetic realism’ that were hitherto unknown, Port of Shadows was an undeniable game changer that revolutionized French filmmaking.

Dark, bleak, and more sinister than anything they’ve ever seen before, the French had, in Port of Shadows, a new genre on their hands. And they called it ‘film noir’.

The film is set in a French port city called Le Havre. Filled with people meandering in divergent and disparate directions, the most downtrodden, it seems, meet at a crossroads at the far side of town, in a place called ‘Panama’s’.

Amongst the lot is a man named Jean (Jean Gabin), an army deserter. Looking to start a life anew, he comes across Nelly (Michèle Morgan), a young woman with similar aspirations.

As the two get more acquainted with each other, they begin to reevaluate their inherit distrust of others, which were conditioned and made necessary by their social circumstances. But as the plot thickens and nefarious intentions are discovered, this realization becomes more ambivalent, until everything culminates in an ending that’s as tragic as it is iconic.

The main difference between Port of Shadows and its successors is in its narrative structure. Less taut and story driven than its American beneficiaries, the film is more contemplative and self-reflective, choosing to focus more on characters and thematic concepts.

But make no mistake; this is still a quintessential film noir. Capturing the ominous fog of the city’s exterior as well as its equally disconcerting criminal underbelly, Carné was ahead of his time in painting a sinister, seamy, and unsavory picture of society.

There’s also the Jean character, the disillusioned hero. He’s an army deserter, the epitome of an individual disenchanted to the idealism propagated by society, and when he arrives at Le Havre, he arrives in a town that’s the living epitome of that very system.

Carné portrays the world as one where everyone has problems but where nobody cares to listen. Where altruism is dead. Where, in order to not be the frog to somebody else’s scorpion, they create a veritable shell. In fact, there are numerous instances where a person will discover the difficult situation of a stranger and simply proclaim, “It’s none of my business”.

This kind of zeitgeist was analogous of the times, of the Depression era, where pessimism ran rampant among the population.

But as the story unfolds, and Jean’s relationship with Nelly deepens, the film posits a radical notion. Is it possible that people aren’t inherently distrustful? Are people simply conditioned to be that way?

Take, for example, the dog as the metaphor. On his way to Le Havre, Jean, in an act of instinct, saves the life of a stray dog. In return, the dog follows Jean into the city and stays with him for the rest of the film. As a metaphor, is Carné and Prévert saying that, if individuals exhibit acts of kindness, the acts will be reciprocated with fidelity?

There are certainly more than a few instances of benevolence in the film. But they go unnoticed by Jean and company because of the actions of a few ne’er-do-wells, particularly by men like Lucien (Pierre Brasseur) and Zabel (Michel Simon).

But when confronted, the vulnerability of these men becomes apparent. Jean is able to see through the false consciousness created by their egregious conduct, and starts having faith in his fellow human beings.

If the film ended like this, it would still be considered a good film. But it doesn’t, which makes it a great one.

With a tragic final act, Port of Shadows ends on a note that reverberates through the ages. Because of this ending, the film inspired the embittered fatalism that permeated the works of people like Billy Wilder, as well as heavily influencing the cynical attitudes of American film noir.

Carné’s Port of Shadows is a masterpiece, a film that argues that no matter how well you can see the inherent good of others, or the kind acts of strangers, they will always be overshadowed by the wanton acts of others. Hence the title.

This simple and forlorn notion has since become ubiquitous amongst future filmmakers and the disenfranchised alike. Hence the genre.

– Justin Li

Port of Shadows is a part of TIFF Cinematheque’s ‘Summer in France’. For more information and tickets, please visit the official website

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